What next for parental leave and flexible working?

9 Oct

It’s National #WorkLifeWeek , and appropriately enough, responses are due on elements of the government’s consultation on its Good Work plan to support families.  This is seeking views on parental leave and flexible working policies. Views on Neonatal Leave, where parents need to attend hospital if their newborn is ill, and on transparency in employers’ publication of flexible working and parental leave entitlements, need to be submitted by 11th October.  Meanwhile, questions relating to government policy on parental leave, require responses by late November.


In bold contrast to other areas of current policy, the government is keen to emphasise trade-offs in choosing between different options in these schemes. There are a lot of questions about the relative merits of different lengths of parental leave, and of levels of pay entitlements and capping.  It’s like that bit in an eye test where they ask about whether you see better with lens A or B, but without the part where you get the sum of all the options for your best vision.


Like the Gender Equality Roadmap before it (cited in the Good Work plan, and which I blogged about earlier ) there’s a lot of observations about things we already know, without much sense of an overarching commitment to resources in the area.  This is an issue when the choices being asked about, often seem to boil down to ‘do you want people – especially fathers – to be able to access additional periods of leave, or would you like them be better paid?’.  As the status quo is widely viewed as inadequate in terms of length and pay, it all feels like a bit of a damp squib.  To its credit, the plan does look at international evidence, and it addresses the importance of wider culture change in enhancing mothers’ ability to return to work, and fathers’ ability to spend more time with their children.  But it doesn’t seem to provide much direction with what it sees – it’s all a matter of trade-offs, you see.  This might seem fair enough in a consultation, but options to extend leave and pay entitlements together, tend to be couched in terms of risks to labour supply, winners and losers in different groups, and concentrating on the economic costs, rather than social benefits. There’s an implicit feel of ‘this is going to cost’, without much attention on how costs of extending fathers’ leave may be partially offset by more mothers in the workforce.  If you want something closer to Nordic policies – and many do, and they have the benefit of being relatively effective in getting mothers back to work and Dads on parental leave – then you need to commit at a national level to put resources in.  This means financial support, but also assistance with practical ways of encouraging behaviour change in the workplace.  Without  resources, we’ll be consulting ad infinitum on why take-up of shared parental leave is so low…


The plan also discusses options around publishing flexible working and family leave policies, and advertising flexible working at point of hire.  Mumsnet has been running a campaign to #Publishparentalleave so that employees can make informed choices about jobs. A proposition to make employers’ flexible and parental leave policies accessible via gender pay gap reporting, has been welcomed by a range of organisations.  The consultancy Timewise has sounded a note of caution regarding enforcement of advertising flexibility, as it may raise the prospect of ‘flexwashing’ – that is, employers stating flexible options are available, without meaningfully providing them. They argue that employers need additional resources to implement flexible working properly, and that government could fund guidance and support.  The options for reforming parental leave and pay raise similar issues: without an infrastructure of universal, high quality, affordable childcare, and resources to provide better levels of pay for periods of leave, and without tools to encourage senior managers to take leave themselves – and to manage and promote others who do so – we could end up stuck in the spin cycle…





Girly swot

8 Sep

 Our PM Boris Johnson has been embroiled in new controversy (or should that be, ‘has got himself into a bit of a scrape’…) for calling David Cameron ‘a girly swot’ in notes on Cabinet papers discussing the prorogation of parliament. The notes were revealed by Sky News, following a Court release where the words had been redacted. It would appear that the term ‘girly swot’ had been considered embarrassing for someone in high office to use in such a memo.


This schoolboy insult does seem to tell us quite a lot about the man who used it.  For one thing, he is someone who sees no great formality in the documents of State, no reason to watch words on record – just ‘be himself’.  This attitude must have been seen as potentially troublesome by whoever saw ‘girly swot’ redacted in the first place. However, in a Trumpian political context, it could be viewed as part of Boris Johnson’s appeal, for people who go for his brand of so-called ‘anti-establishment’ ‘straight-talking’: Boris is just ‘like that’ and they (often similarly aged, or older, men) like him that way.


Meanwhile, many others have been quick to point out that the Prime Minister has form in using this type of playground language.  He first called David Cameron a ‘girly swot’ a few years ago, recalling that Cameron got a first class degree, while he, Boris Johnson, the popular Classicist extraordinaire, did not. This instance seems to underline that he means the term to be derogatory.  He’s playing to a gallery that he wants to root for him, rather than a more academically successful colleague. There’s an implication that he is the ‘real man’, and that to be ‘girly’ is undesirable.  Coupled with his recent use of the term ‘big girl’s blouse’, which he lobbed across the chamber at Jeremy Corbyn in an exchange about calling a General Election, it does imply sexism on Johnson’s part. Over on twitter, women in politics and journalism pointed out how anachronistic the language was. They wondered how being a studious woman was something to be ashamed of – ‘Girly swot is a compliment, right?’ tweeted Sky’s own Sophy Ridge.


I’m probably one of nature’s ‘girly swots’ myself, and the added issue for me in the PM’s use of the term, is that it implies that attention to detail in politics (wonkery, you might say) is a weakness.  Boris Johnson is trying to extricate the UK from the EU, unravelling over 40 years of legal and trade agreements.  If I was embarking on such an exercise, I’d want all the ‘girly swots’ I could get.  But then I’m not sure Dominic Cummings is a big fan of ‘girly swots’ either…. This morning Sophy Ridge asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, what he thought of the Prime Minister’s language.  He evaded, saying ‘you can call me a girly swot anytime’. That is not something I would have in mind for someone who was recently part of ‘showing off wives and policies’ in the Tory leadership contest.  The report for this term’s Conservative men reads ‘Must try harder’ ….





Spending more time with our families …

29 Aug

As Ruth Davidson steps down from the Conservative leadership in Scotland, citing the primary reason as being her commitment to her young son and the family life that top-flight politicians so frequently find it hard to balance with the rigours of campaigning, travelling and irregular working hours, I was struck by the difference that her being a woman has made to the accompanying discussion.

When male politicians resign ‘to spend more time with their family’ it is often treated as a kind of euphemism.  We routinely assume that they have committed politics. Or, find out that they have had an affair, that makes their position somehow untenable.  Either way, the ‘excuse’ is seen as standing for something else.  And in the case of affairs, it’s often met with a collective eyeroll, and the schadenfreude comments about how the wife must be delighted to have him around more …

However, when Davidson remarked that her son’s arrival in November had made her reassess her feelings about leadership and the possibility of future campaigning, with all the separations from home that that entails, the one thing people do not seem to have done, is disbelieve her account completely.  Sure, she’s known to disgree with Boris Johnson on a range of issues, and may even disapprove of his decision to prorogue Parliament, though she did not overtly say so.  But the pull of a child aged under one for its mother, has largely been viewed as a ‘real’ element of the story, in a way that is not broadly characteristic of treatment of men resigning for ‘family reasons’.

In the event, Ruth Davidson entered into the current Brexit crisis only in so far as to say that MPs should back PM Johnson’s (somewhat opaque) efforts to secure a new deal with the EU. In this way, she said, they could avoid the spectre of No Deal.  No criticism was made of the Prime Minister’s strategy – possibly another sign that a General Election may happen, and Davidson would be aware of the significance for her UK party, of retaining a Conservative presence in Scotland.

Over on Radio 4, towards the end of the PM programme, two women who happen to be mothers and involved in political commentary – Hannah White of the Institute for Government, an authoritative think tank, and Zoe Williams, the Guardian columnist – took part in a discussion about the issues in balancing career and family life.  They noted that there is still much more to be done to support female MPs in the midst of early parenthood, as the template of of work assumes a level of availability that is hard to maintain without resources of alternative care, and – especially relevant for Scottish and other far-flung representatives – proximity to place of work.  Making full parental leave available to both male and female parliamentarians would potentially mitigate against all these factors impacting female politicians disproportionately.  I have often written about these structural issues, and they do bring us back to some of the geographic and economic inequalities which have some role in how we got into the wider political turmoil we are all now part of …

Back with Ruth Davidson’s announcement, and the coverage it has received, which provides yet another example of the differential treatment of men and women in public life: she as truth-telling about work-life balance, men as finding an expedient getaway.  We could, alternatively, believe, that Davidson, like her male counterparts, is using ‘family reasons’ as political cover.  And if we did, that might be viewed as very of the moment ..













X marks the spot

4 Jul

The government has just published its Gender Equality Roadmap, launched with a flourish yesterday by Penny Mordaunt, in her capacity as Women and Equalities Minister. 


The Roadmap charts the types of disadvantage women encounter at different stages in their lives and sets out government initiatives in response.  So far, so good … but the trouble is that the roadmap is hardly new, and the responses aren’t big on concrete action either.  Researchers and policy analysts have been charting women’s lifetime economic disadvantage compared to men for years –  and counting the cost (and calculating the value) of childcare and elder care.  We know that women’s career trajectories leave them lower-earning in prime years, and under-pensioned in old age, compared to men.  We also know that girls are less likely to enter scientific careers, or to find jobs in the most lucrative sectors of the labour market.  Like many reports before it, the roadmap talks about engaging girls in STEM, but has little to say about enhancing the esteem in which traditionally female sectors of the labour force are held, or encouraging boys to get involved in them.  The Roadmap acknowledges that the benefits system has not always met the needs of women, and proposes that Universal Credit will simplify the process of claiming and improve  outcomes for women.  This claim is rather hard to reconcile with the evidence that Universal Credit has driven many to foodbanks during the long waiting periods before payments are made.  No mention is made of the single payment per household, a feature of Universal Credit which campaigners have highlighted as having potentially negative impacts for women. 


The Roadmap discusses Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and flexible working, as policies which can contribute to closing the gender gap in earning and progression at work.  While it is welcome that the government is reviewing the current SPL system, and ‘celebrating’ employers who offer beyond the statutory levels of pay, we already know that without higher pay levels, Shared Parental Leave is a non-starter for many families, however well-disposed towards it parents are in theory.  And we also know from international evidence that our current system falls well short of the conditions required for it to become a mainstream option – I’ve blogged about this repeatedly – e.g. here.  The Roadmap proposes a new digital tool to inform parents better of their leave and childcare options, but without more resources it is hard to see how this will make any significant difference to take-up.  Pilots for innovation in flexible working may be more promising, but we do seem to have been stuck at the pilot stage for a long time now ….


 The Roadmap does acknowledge a range of factors including direct discrimination and harassment which contribute to women’s disadvantage, and it makes mention of intersectionality and the value of care work as well as its costs. It also flags that the Government Equalities Office will now sit in the Cabinet Office, which should aid cross-departmental working.  But, as the Women’s Budget Group points out, identifying the issues is a first step, and the solutions to gender inequality require financial investment – in public services, in childcare and social care.  Instead of a Roadmap, perhaps we need a treasure map, with X marking the spot where a budget for women’s needs is to be found. 


Parliament’s problem with leave

20 Jun

Following Stella Creasy’s article in the Guardian, there has been a groundswell of support for her proposition that MPs should have a proper system of leave, to cover all aspects of their work in the months following childbirth.

 It’s remarkable that this needs to be fought for in 2019.  Only earlier this year did MPs finally earn the right to proxy voting, so that new parents can nominate another MP to vote in parliament in their place. However, there is no cover routinely available for constituency work, which is an  important part of what MPs actually do day-to-day.  The caseload for many MPs has grown in recent years, and if our representatives are not able to appoint additional cover in the early months of parenthood, the burden falls on already stretched local office staff, or, is shouldered with some difficulty by nursing mothers.  In response to Stella Creasy’s finding that Ipsa, the regulator responsible for MPs’ pay and expenses has no established scheme to support maternity or parental leave, the enterprising activist Joeli Brearly  (known through the campaign against maternity discrimination, ‘Pregnant then Screwed’)  set up a petition to support six months parental leave for MPs, which has already gained twenty thousand signatures.


Creasy’s account of lack of proper maternity cover was confirmed by MP Tulip Siddiq, who postponed the birth of her second child in order to take part in a crucial Brexit vote.  This event proved a final impetus towards the trial of proxy voting.  But her comments about wider maternity leave caught my eye.  Siddiq recounted how when she was pregnant the first time, she looked into getting cover for her constituency work, and was turned down.  She did not even bother to apply a second time.  And this process of rebuff and then not even trying again, resonates with other stories of dilemmas faced by many working mothers.  Although most employees are better provided for in terms of maternity leave than MPs, the issues do not stop there.  So often women with young children find goalposts changing when they go on leave, or return to their workplace having had children.  The promise of flexible hours turns out not to be as understood; elements of their role have been hived off.  They could be included a particular workstream, but all the meetings are at 8.30 a.m. or 6 p.m..  Of course they’d be welcome to come to the conference, but childcare is not covered on expenses.  And so it goes on, and many rebuffed mothers do not even try another time.  There is a lack of recognition of these issues in the system. It’s all about a failure to acknowledge combining employment and childcare in systems which were built for people whose children were cared for by someone else at home.  No guessing the usual gender division between those roles ….


Stella Creasy and Tulip Siddiq have not only highlighted the iniquities faced by MPs who happen to be parents, but also the kinds of inflexibility which blight women’s experiences in many workplaces.  Employers everywhere need to rethink their roles, which are often structured against people who have caring responsibilities as well as work obligations.  With formal childcare in Britain so expensive, it remains a real struggle for many parents to maintain employment and parenthood, and rigid employment practices risk burning out too many new mothers. Even today, many mothers report leaving the workforce because of such pressures.  Proper funding of leave and flexible working patterns would help so many parents, and benefit employers through retention of skilled workers.  Our representatives in parliament should be leading on these issues, rather than having to fight old battles yet again.



Why they’re always in the kitchen for political parties…

15 May

You may have had enough of James ‘two ovens’ Brokenshire by now, but bear with me a moment, as I look at why the kitchen is such a ubiquitous backdrop for political ambition.

The thing about kitchens is that they are everyday places – we all have to use one, to store provisions and to feed ourselves.  So, at a level, they are utilitarian and universal. This is why politicians might wish to be seen in them – to show that they too are ordinary people, to be in PR-speak, ‘relatable’.  What could be more normal than washing the dishes? Kitchens are places of domestic economy – where food is prepared and distributed, so that politicians in kitchens can give a nod towards good housekeeping and responsible budgeting, and have wholesome associations with healthy nutrition for families. 

So far, so appealing.  But now we get to the ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ bit, currently being ‘enjoyed’ by Messrs Brokenshire and Raab, both recently seen in interviews down home with their wives, in – where else? – the kitchen.  For as well as being sites of mundane labour, kitchens are powerful signifiers of social class and status.  Mr Brokenshire’s four ovens may seem like a simple preference for the kind of people who re-fit their kitchens when they move house or build extensions, but these types of choices look very different to people whose kitchens are more Royle Family than royal family. In the UK, the links been kitchens and social class are so well-understood that there are ‘Smug’ fridges in Aardman animations – the gadgets and brands in our kitchens are a perfect social shorthand.  It’s no coincidence that about a third of the 16 items recently deemed to make you middle-class in Britain, were things that are kitchen-related.  One of these, the barbeque, features prominently in Dominic Raab’s framed word cloud decoration, which probably has an advisor now banging their head on a zinc counter somewhere ….


As well as signalling social class, kitchens provide a gender minefield.  Male politicians like David Cameron (remember webcameron?) like to be seen there to enact not just ordinary bloke-ishness, but also modern fatherhood.  Cameron doled out kids’ breakfast or stacked the dishwasher while discussing his vision for the future.  For women, it’s a double-edged sword to be seen in the kitchen.  As the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher used it both to soften her image, cooking for Dennis on the morning of the election, and to show her science credentials, in a BBC2 programme.  Nicola Sturgeon gave an interview in hers in 2015, confessing that she spent little time there – too busy being an effective leader to be in there much.  And she has a point, as the first cry of the sceptic watching women in powerful positions, is to suggest that they get ‘back to the kitchen’, where women belong in their domestic roles.  


Across the pond, kitchen skills have often caused controversy for first ladies: while many were happy to be depicted baking cookies for the nation, Hillary Clinton famously fell foul of public opinion by declaring that she had preferred her profession to homebaking.  Although Michelle Obama was happy to plant a vegetable garden and advocate healthy eating, she distanced herself from any great culinary expertise.  President Obama, meanwhile, was photographed at that temple of masculine cuisine: the barbeque.  In terms of kitchens themselves, American presidents arguably have it easier in terms of public perceptions, as the White House kitchen is famous as a backdrop in its own right, teeming with professional staff to cater for all occasions.  This fact, along with the privileges of gender, make skits like the Onion’s, showing Obama mocked-up in the White House kitchen attempting to cater for a Chinese delegation, work. More recently Trump pitched himself as the gold-plated everyman, laying on a McDonald’s ‘banquet’ when the White House kitchen was out of service.  No scratch cooking for this man’s man.


A final reason why politicians should tread warily in the kitchen is that they have become venues of studied informality.  As Amanda Craig wrote when David Cameron was caught up in the ‘kitchen suppers’ controversy, where the likes of Rebekah Brooks joined him for casual meals in the Cotswolds, the loss of dining rooms from domestic architecture means that kitchens are now intimate spaces where people can relax.  Many cook performatively in view of guests – the performance aspects appealing particularly to the modern hands-on man. And once the cooking is done, everyone dines together in the same warm space. This intimacy is why kitchens are associated with close circles –  ‘kitchen cabinet’ is used to describe leaders’ most trusted allies; and it also why ‘kitchen table’ politics is a phrase used for down-to-earth conversations between representatives and the public.  As Labours’ notorious pink bus campaign for attracting women voters showed, the image of the kitchen table has to be used with care, or it ends up entangled with all that gender and class symbolism once more.

The intimacy of kitchens means that the kitchen interview or photo shoot can lead to journalists getting politicians to reveal more than might have been the case otherwise.  Think of Ed ‘two kitchens’ Miliband, or David Cameron (again!) revealing that he wouldn’t run for a third term while making salad with James Landale.  Modern, intimate kitchens allow us to display some personality, which is perhaps why the current Prime Minister has found any steer towards them fraught.  When not extolling the virtues of mouldy jam to a divided nation, Theresa May has been known to express pride in her extensive collection of cookbooks, inspiring the amazing revelation that cookery is enjoyable ‘because you get to eat it as well as make it’ –  about as robotic a response as you could hope for.  As John Donne didn’t say, ‘No kitchen island is entire of itself’, and politicians would do well to remember that, as they throw open the doors of their homes to greet us …




Some ministries are still more equal than others ….

2 May

It’s just past a year to the day since I wrote about the way in which some ministries of government are more equal than others.  This was in reference to the post of Minister for Women and Equalities. It is a jointly-held office, whose new incumbent in 2018, Penny Mordaunt, was only announced some time after the Prime Minister had named Amber Rudd’s successor in the Home Office, Sajid Javid.  Back to the present, and in the wake of yet another controversial departure from government, we find that Ms Mordaunt is to step up to replace Gavin Williamson at the Ministry of Defence.  This year, it has been immediately announced that she takes the joint brief of Women and Equalities with her, thus halting a regular churn of appointments in this post – at least for now. When it comes to establishing who is prioritising the burning injustices at the heart of the Women and Equalities office, it will prove tempting to ask ‘You and whose army?’ …


Penny Mordaunt makes history as the first woman to act as Defence Secretary, and it’s been interesting to see the response to her keeping Women and Equalities as well.  While last year’s attention focussed on the fact that the low priority of Women and Equalities was demonstrated by the late naming of the new official, this year there seems to be more concern about how two ministerial jobs can be done at once.  I’m guessing it’s not rocket science to work out why this comes up more in terms of Defence, than say, Education, Home Office or Culture… Defence, like the last bastion of male-only incumbents, the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is still often viewed as a man’s world, and, often a macho one too.  And we all know that archetypal men’s jobs are all-consumingly full-time …


The truth is that Women and Equalities should be a freestanding post.  Many today are pointing to the fact that Theresa May mentioned her preference to see more women in senior government posts, while giving evidence at a select committee, just hours before the news of Williamson’s sacking and Mordaunt’s promotion were made public. But there hasn’t been much renewed call for the Women and Equalities brief to be re-allocated as a full-on Cabinet post.  Another year, another missed opportunity to do so.


However, since last year, all has not stood still in terms of Women and Equalities.  Following Penny Mordaunt’s appointment, the Women and Equalities Select Committee produced a report on the role of the Minister, and the place of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in government.  This report spoke out against the continual movement between departments, which has been characteristic of the role in its current form as a jointly-held post.  New ministers have come along because of changes in Cabinet personnel, rather than due to the priorities of the post itself.  The report recommended that post should become full-time in the Cabinet Office, and that the supporting GEO should also permanently reside there.  In her response for the government, Ms Mordaunt agreed that ‘the GEO will need a permanent home in future, and we will look to do that at a suitable opportunity.’ Meanwhile, it remains camped at the Department of Education, and the GEO was reporting to leaders at the department for International Development while Penny Mordaunt was minister there. It remains to be seen if her shift to Defence might represent a ‘suitable opportunity’ to seek permanent residence elsewhere.


Given the general government paralysis as Brexit rumbles on, it seems unlikely that there will be much appetite to transform the equalities function in government. And Penny Mordaunt’s desire to maintain the brief is good for stability, while making any such transformation less immediately likely.  Women and Equalities therefore remains a Cinderella brief – like women’s unpaid work, a second shift while doing something else.




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